Low – C’mon (Sub Pop)

You know you’re getting old when you start saying to yourself “I haven’t seen this band live for 20 years.” Low is one of those great, quiet, enduring indie bands that rode the backside of the Nirvana revolution 20 years ago. Making music from Duluth, MN for esteemed labels like Vernon Yard, Kranky and Sub Pop the band has been consistently touring and playing for quiet appreciative crowds in clubs all over the world, making, at times, barely enough noise to elicit a sway in the room entranced by the ethereal vocals of Mimi Parker and the soulful intensity of husband Alan Sparhawk.

It has been years since I really dialed into a Low album but “C’Mon” has a few of the best songs of the decade. “Witches” is a big beautiful storm of cool that builds gradually, a subtle banjo groove keeping it anchored along the way, and the beautifully apropos “Try to Sleep”  whose “You try to sleep/Cause there’s never enough/Inside a dream/ You take a stand” floats along like a children’s song with just a hint of bitterness. Perhaps this band is acquired taste but after so many years I am thrilled that neither of us has given up on indie rock.  In the end Low always gets me high, and “C’mon,” recorded in an old church, infuses a kind of subtle spiritually into this beautiful minor masterpiece. For newbies please seek out their epic cover of Toto’s “Africa” on AV Club.

The Bestest 2010 – Tunage

This year everything old seems particularly new again. Perhaps that is because I am now officially over forty, and I have been paying more attention to what is in the past than I ever did before.  There was a time not so long ago that bands were empowered to communicate directly with fans through a short lived (in retrospect) juggernaut called MySpace. Flash forward a few short years, and a few companies (Twitter and Facebook) have enabled bands to speak directly to fans without interference from the advertising littered, corporatized chaos that MySpace had become.  In an age where musicians rely on touring more than ever before, the portability of music on phones, tablets, Pandora, and wifi connected TVs and stereos has finally made listening to anything and everything, whenever and wherever, as easy as we thought it would be when we first started imagining a new paradigm a decade ago. For me Sonos, Spotify and my iPhone are the paraphernalia that hold my drugs of choice. This year I fell into an entirely new crop of retro soul, folk and power pop. With countless hours logged on airplanes and in airports, it’s hard to imagine what I would have done without the persistent soundtrack blown through headphones, on moving walkways and 747s. In a world without record stores, live shows fill the void, and the universal language of music is never more tangible than experienced from right in front of the stage at Fillmore, Coachella and the Greek, and this is what I listened to:

1) Local Natives – Gorilla Manor (Frenchkiss)

There are moments in life when the joy of the unexpected trumps the predictably incredible. This is rarely truer than when your first real exposure is watching a band you know very little about play live. This is how I first experienced Local Natives. I caught them early in the day at Coachella, not far from their LA home, and watched them rip through 50 of the most joyous moments of the festival. The blogosphere refers to the band as a kind of “Weekend Foxes,” but to me they are more percussive and with the anthemic intensity of a much bigger band. You can hear bits of “English Settlement” era XTC mixed with the rootsiness of Blitzen Trapper and the emotion of the Frames.

With all festival and internet buzz bands, there is a chance to outgrow the hype and really build an audience that extends beyond the tiny clubs of Austin or Indio. In an age where many bands can make a great recorded piece of work, the real skill shows in playing live and delivering contagious energy and authenticity. Local Natives are young, but their songs are big. On “Shape Shifter” think Coldplay, and perhaps My Morning Jacket on “Wide Eyes.”  I listen to them as I write this and can’t help but smile. Not bad for a bunch of kids from Silverlake, CA.

2) Stornoway – Beachcomber’s Windowsill (Rough Trade)

It took perhaps thirty seconds for me to know that “Beachcomber’s Windowsill,” the debut from Stornoway, was something rare and special. It reminded me immediately of how I felt when I first heard Belle & Sebastian well over a decade ago – a kind of pure happiness usually reserved for children, best heard on songs like “Boats and Trains” and “We Are Battery Human.”

Stornoway makes perfect pop music, theme music for a fairy tale, innocent yet cool. Musically the band mixes strings, banjo, and piano into a more traditional indie pop structure like their thematic and instrumental soul mates, The Decemberists (see ‘The Coldharbour Road’).  But ultimately Stornoway soars on the wings of infectious vocals and harmonies, part barbershop quartet part orchestral hipster. Every year there is one record that seems miles out in front of the next.  I hope this band can make as prolific a career of this as Belle and Sebastian have done. We all could use a little piece of our childhoods back, even if only for three or four minutes at a time. [Read more…]

The Bestest 2007, Tunage

Tunage

Despite the relentless negativity and uncertainty that surrounds the current state of the music business the artists and the art that emerged in 2007 were nothing less exceptional. More and better records seemed to ooze from every pore of the digital underbelly. The long tail is officially alive and well, and thanks to the success of iTunes, and the even better, eMusic service, it is now possible to deliver instant gratification to music lovers and readers of this list. In addition to that there is a wonderful real time environment for discovery and taste matching through sites like imeem, Mog, and metacritic.com. All of this makes finding and distilling a list down to even twenty must-haves near impossible. Alas, here are the records that made 2007 that much better for me. I hope you take in this list and then trust your own ears. 

1.            Midlake - “The Trials of Van Occupanther” (Bella Union)

Technically this is a 2006 record, but I didn’t find it until this year, and it was far and away the one record that meant the most to me this year. I didn’t like the name. I was suspicious about all the references to 70’s Americana. But 30 seconds into the “The Trials”, I was swept away. This is one of those rare albums that require no work whatsoever to fall hard and fast for. The breezy summer day sound is both bright and thoughtful, and does, I suppose, seem somewhat reminiscent of a genuinely American sound from some ambiguous time and place. Not so much rock like The Band, but more like only the best parts of Fleetwood Mac “Rumors”; cool and silky without any of the distinctive quirks that sometimes get tired after a while. But to suggest that the record is merely  A straight forward guitar, bass, and drums idea, is to overlook the robust instrumentation (flute, strings, brass) along the way. Somehow this record went overlooked last year, so thank goodness it is so timeless.

2.            Okkervil River “The Stage Names” (Jagjaguwar)

Far too few people will ever hear this record, I know it. This is rock balladry in its most modern finery, sung with the earnestness of a Springsteen or Tweedy, but thinner and slightly more warbling like Bright Eyes, with music as authentic and warm as “The Last Waltz.” On “The Stage Names,” the Texas band’s third album, the band has peppered their onetime sparse flavor of alt-country with billowing strings and piano such as on the epic “A Girl In Port,” or more upbeat and danceable tracks like “A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene”, and precious orchestral ditties like “Savannah Smiles.” Don’t get me wrong, this record isn’t so much a derivative of something else as it is conscious of all of the great under-appreciated music that has informed it. This is a major minor masterpiece, accessible yet specific enough to charm indie zealots and Coldplay posers alike. If not for the tragically overlooked Midlake at #1, “The Stage Names” made the first and most potent impact on me in 2007 featuring some of the finest songwriting of the year. Don’t live without it.

[Read more…]